Schematic illustration of the hypothesis behind combined radio- and immunotherapy in patients who have cancer cells with proficient versus deficient cell death processes, specifically regarding activation of caspases (enzymes that break down cells).

New lab test for advancing cancer treatments


Five questions for Johan Spetz, who receives a SEK 6 million starting grant to research cancer treatments over four years using his own newly developed lab test.

Johan Spetz.

The Swedish Research Council has decided to award you a starting grant of SEK 6 million. What was your first reaction and what does this mean for you?
“I was almost shocked. I know how fierce the competition is for these grants and how difficult they are to obtain. It’s great that they chose to invest in my project! For me, it means a chance to establish my own line of research. I am now recruiting a doctoral student who will work on the project in the coming years,” says Johan Spetz, a researcher in medical radiation science at the Institute of Clinical Sciences.

What is the background to your research project?
“Immunotherapy with so-called checkpoint inhibitors is one of the most successful cancer treatments in modern times. It utilizes the body’s own immune cells to eliminate cancer. However, while some patients can be cured with this therapy, most do not respond to the treatments. Understanding which patients will respond to the treatments is an ongoing area of research, but so far no strong predictive tests have been found.”

Developed a unique lab test

So, how will you solve this puzzle?
Through a new lab test that I developed during my postdoc with Kristopher Sarosiek at Harvard School of Public Health. The test measures, in advance, deficiencies in the processes cancer cells undergo when they die, for example after radiotherapy. Using this test, we’ll be able to identify patients most likely to benefit from ‘checkpoint inhibitors’,” says Johan Spetz, adding:

“And if we can alter these death processes in cancer cells, I hope that we can also transform patients who currently do not respond to the therapy into patients who might even be cured of their cancer. Our results will most likely not have the full answer to the puzzle, but I hope this will get us some way toward the solution.”

Do you also work clinically, or are you a full-time researcher?
"I work 100 percent at the University of Gothenburg with medical radiation physics, where the majority of my work is spent on research. However, I am also involved in teaching in the later years of the medical physics program.”

“Understanding molecular signals”

Can you tell us more about the research you intend to do over the next four years?
“My research is about the different ways in which cells die, for example after cancer treatment, and how this affects treatment effectiveness and the disease state. Primarily, it is about the effects of radiotherapy and immunotherapy, both focused on increasing effects on the tumor and reducing side effects on healthy organs. By understanding the molecular signals involved in the death processes of cells, I hope that we will be able to find ways to improve current cancer treatment.”

Text: Jakob Lundberg